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Vrtoče

(VHR-toh-cheh)

Brief Details:

Name: Memorial Park to Fallen Soldiers and Victims of the National Liberation War

Location: Vrtoče, FBiH, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Year completed: 1971

Designer: Nebojša Latinović and Enver Kudić

Coordinates: N44°38'08.3", E16°10'42.1" (click for map)

Dimensions: ~5m tall monument on raised platform

Materials used: Poured concrete and rebar

Condition: Good, rehabilitated

History:

The sculpture at this memorial complex located in Vrtoče, Bosnia commemorates the many local fighters and civilian victims who fought and perished during the National Liberation War (WWII).

World War II

As Axis armies invaded the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in April of 1941, the Kingdom quickly fell and the area of present-day Vrtoče, in the Petrovac region east of the Una River, was taken over by Axis occupational forces. This region of Petrovac was then annexed into the newly created Axis puppet-state of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH). An extremist nationalist militia called the 'Ustaše' were used as the NDH's military arm in which they enforced order and occupation across their territory. In their role of military occupation enforcers across the NDH, the Ustaše were particularly set on eliminating all Jews, ethnic-Serbs, Roma and other dissidents from the region. Within a few months of this brutal occupation, many people across the Petrovac region began to organize and rise up against these oppressive invading forces, with many aligning themselves with the communist-led Partisan resistance movement, commanded by Josip Tito. In Vrtoče, a Partisan unit called the Vrtoče Company (Vrtočka četa) was formed on July 27th, 1941, with command responsibility taken up by local leader Milan Atlagić (Милан атлагић) (Photo 1).

Photo 1: Milan Atlagić

In response to these popular uprisings, on July 29th, reports indicate that roughly 40 anti-Axis ethnic-Serb dissidents in Vrtoče were arrested by the Ustaše and driven north to the town of Bihać, at which point they were executed at the Garavice killing fields. The next day, on July 30th, 1941, the Vrtoče Company took part in a skirmish against a Ustaše unit at the nearby village of Krnjeuša. During this offensive, the Vrtoče Company Partisans out-maneuvered the Ustaše, causing them to retreat towards Bihać. Among the supplies recovered from the retreating Ustaše was a large artillery cannon along with a small amount of ammunition. This cannon was then brought back as a trophy to Vrtoče. The other weapons taken from the Ustaše from this victory greatly helped Atlagić lead the Vrtoče Company in their continued struggles across Petrovac through the rest of 1941 and early 1942.

Photo 2: The town of Jajce just before the November 1942 Partisan offensive

In August of 1942, the Vrtoče Company was absorbed into the much larger 3rd Krajina Partisan Brigade due to their successes in their field of battle. In the early part of November, the 3rd Krajina Brigade joined in the storming of the nearby city of Bihać, which resulted in an overpowering of the town's German occupational forces. The newly liberated city was declared a independent territory and designated as the Bihać Republic, of which Vrtoče became a part of. On the coat-tails of this victory, the 3rd Krajina Brigade then marched east and successfully fought to liberate Jajce by the end of November 1942 from Axis control. However, the Bihać victory was short-lived, as German troops soon retook the city just two months later. In response to these series of uprisings and attempts at liberating territory, the Ustaše forces engaged in mass reprisal killings across Petrovac through 1943, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of what were mostly ethnic-Serb civilians. Meanwhile, the 3rd Krajina Brigade continued to engage in offensives and military maneuvers across Bosnia, including the notable battles of Sutjeska, Drvar and Neretva.

In early September of 1944, members of the 5th Partisan Impact Corps finally liberated the Bosanski Petrovac, along with Vrtoče and the surrounding region of Petrovac, from Ustaše and Germany Army control, driving these Axis forces north towards Bihać. Over 1,000 people from the area surrounding Vrtoče, both fighters and civilians, perished during the course of the war. In the Petrovac region alone, nearly 4,000 ethnic-Serbs, Jews, anti-fascists and other dissidents were killed by Ustaše forces.

Spomenik Construction

During the late 1960s, the local and regional government organizations, along with area veterans groups, began to coordinate the construction of a spomenik complex in Vrtoče to commemorate the fallen fighters and civilians victims of the war. After an open design competition was held, the commission to create and build the monument was awarded to the concept proposal put forward by Croatian designers Nebojša Latinović and Enver Kudić. The spomenik complex was officially unveiled to the public on July 27th, 1971, a date which was chosen to commemorate exactly 30 years since the initial uprisings against Axis occupation in Vrtoče. The primary memorial element of the complex is a sculpture consisting of three white concrete fins (roughly 5m tall) set upon an elevated walkway, with the three fins all connected about half way up. At the point of connection of all three fins, there is placed a half meter tall dark blue star. Another central element of this memorial is an artillery cannon set on top of a tall concrete platform. This cannon was captured from Axis forces by the Partisan rebels during the National Liberation War. Under this platform are a series of engraved panels bearing a list of fallen fighters. In addition, in 1971, a grave to Bosnian Serb WWII veteran and JNA general Milan Atlagić (Милан атлагић) was included at this site, as Atlagić was the first commander of the Vrtoče Partisan Company. Lastly, a museum was included in this complex which included relics, artifacts and information about the Liberation struggle which took place in this region.

Photo 3: A view of pre-2011 damaged done to the memorial at Vrtoče

Present-Day

This complex received significant damage and neglect in the 1990s, during the years after the dismantling of Yugoslavia and the ensuing Bosnian War which befell this region. Many of the plaques and engravings were damaged or destroyed (Photo 3), while the artillery cannon memorial element was removed. However, in 2011, a rehabilitation effort at the complex was able to repair and replace a significant amount of the damaged and stolen stone plaques. The memorial's original artillery cannon was also found and placed back on top of its concrete platform. The impetus for this restoration was to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the popular uprising against the village's Axis occupation during WWII. Funds for the restoration of the monument were raised by a local advocacy group from both private and public organizations. Today, the complex is in relatively good condition, hosting annual commemorative events and functions, with the primary remembrance ceremonies being held on July 27th of every year.

Plaques, Engravings and Graffiti:

There are a number of inscribed elements at the monument complex here at Vrtoče. Firstly at the main entrance walkway to the monument there is an engraved black stone sign (Slide 1). It reads, when translated into English, as:

"Memorial Park

Fallen soldiers: 408

And victims: 768"

Walking past this plaque up the stairs and along the elevated platform, you will come to the main memorial sculpture. At this sculpture you will find a polished black granite engraved plaque installed underneath the sculpture at the center of its three legs (Slides 2 & 3). The inscription on this plaque reads, when translated into English, as:

Slideshow

"At this spot lie the body remains of 408 Yugoslavian fighters who fell during the National Liberation War around the area of the villages of Vrtoče, Bjelaj, Bušije, Cimesa, Bjelaski, Vaganac, Male Stjenjane, Prkosi and Oraško Brdo."

July 27th, 1971

-Union of Societies of Fighters of the People's Liberation War of the Municipality of Bosanski Petrovac

Adjacent to the spomenik, there is a small raised concrete platform (roughly 4m tall) on top of which is a WWII artillery cannon, while on the walls under the platform are installed several more black granite panels engraved with the names of fallen soldiers from villages and towns mentioned in the above inscription (Slides 4 - 9). On the first of this set of granite panels (Slide 5), there are some introductory honorific inscriptions along with a large engraving of the Yugoslav star. This inscription reads, translated into English, as:

(left of star)

"Thank you for defending us from oblivion."

(right of star)

"The freedom you gave us is defended by its universal anti-fascist values, and we, your future generations, defend the memory of your brave deeds"

(underneath star)

"Fallen Fighters in Anti-Fascist War"

1941-1945

Then, in Slide 8, you can see that at the very end of the engraved list of names of fallen Partisan fighters and victims, there is a small parting inscription (bottom right corner of the plaque) left for the reader to dwell on after exploring such a sombre inventory of the deceased. The inscription is from famed Serbian poet Jovan Jovanović Zmaj (Јован Јовановић Змај) and it roughly reads, when translated into English, as:

"Who were those who fought, who called you forward, who strengthened you, who gave you their wings... they were the ideals."

J.J. Zmaj

Also adjacent to the spomenik, there are several standing stone panels engraved with the names and lifespans of many of those hundreds of civilian victims from this area who died during the National Liberation struggle (Slide 9 - 11). On the left-most granite panel (Slide 10), there is header engravings and an introductory honorific inscription along with a large engraving of the Yugoslav star. There read as, translated into English, as:

(right of star)

"From the teacher which is life, we learn how we must never forget."

(underneath star)

"Victims of Fascist Terror, 1941 - 1945"

Then, at the end of this engraved list of civilian war victims, a parting inscription is also included in the bottom right corner of the plaque (Slide 11). It reads, when translated into English, as:

"One doesn't live here simply to live, one doesn't live here only to die, one dies here to make life possible."

It is important to note that all of these plaques are relatively new and/or refurbished, as they were repaired and installed during a rehabilitation project in early 2011. An earlier photo of the condition of the spomenik's plaques at around 2008 can be seen in Slide 12, which depicts all of them missing (even the artillery cannon), presumably destroyed, stolen or removed at some point during the tensions of the 1990s or 2000s. Furthermore, in Slide 13, you can see the plaque depicting the name of the construction company which oversaw the construction of the monument, 'GP Zvijezda Visoko'. Finally, in Slide 14, you can see a pedestal engraved with the name of Bosnian Serb WWII veteran and JNA general Milan Atlagić (Милан атлагић), which was installed at this site in 1972. While it appears as though this is a grave, the stone pedestal may have also at one time had attached to it a sculptural bust of Atlagić.

Symbolism:

The composition of the abstract memorial sculpture at the center of this spomenik complex in Vrtoče, Bosnia, created by Nebojša Latinović and Enver Kudić, can be most readily described as three vertical concrete fins radiating from and connected at a center point, at which there is a star. My analysis would be that the symbolic meaning of this sculpture relates to the region's ethnic composition and efforts towards cultivating cooperation. From what I can interpret, each of the three concrete fins of the sculpture represent one of the region's three ethnic groups: the Croats, the Serbs and the Bosniaks. Each of these fins is each connected to one another at a center point, a feature which recognizes the distinctness of each ethnic group represented through each fin while also emphasizing the interconnections and cooperation between these groups. Furthermore, at this connection of the three fins is a star shape (a symbol for the Yugoslav state) (Photo 4), which represented the idea that this ethnic unity and brotherhood was openly facilitated and nurtured by the era's communist government.

Photo 4: The star at the center of the sculpture at Vrtoče

Status and Condition:

From evaluating the site upon my most recent visit in the spring of 2017, I found this spomenik complex here at Vrtoče, Bosnia to be in relatively good condition. Firstly, the landscaping and vegetation around the memorial is kept in reasonable shape, being regularly mowed and maintained. The structure of the memorial sculpture and additional memorial elements are also in good condition, especially after the 2011 restoration organized by multi-agency collaboration effort called the "Committee for the Reconstruction of the Central Monument in Vrtoče". The restoration was necessary after the monument sustained significant damage during the Bosnian War (as well as the years afterwards). This 2011 restoration project was undertaken to commemorate not only the 70 years since the region's first uprising, but also to commemorate the 40 years since the original construction of the spomenik complex. However, despite this restoration, signage to and around the memorial is still lacking. There are no directional or promotional signs directing visitors or tourists to the memorial from the main highway, while there is also a lack of signage in the memorial itself making visitors aware of the history of the Vrtoče Company and cultural significance of the site. Furthermore, a museum building is also included at this complex, however, while it appears in good condition from the outside, it was locked during my most recent visit, so I was unable to ascertain its current interior condition.

Though, despite this lack of signage, there are still a number of visitors who patronize the site. As it can be easily seen off of the main highway, it gets an appreciable number of roadside tourists, as well a many from the local community coming to the site to pay homage to it. Tribute paid to the site by locals is evidenced by the wreaths, flowers and candles I found left at the monument during my most recent visit. In addition, commemorative events are still consistently held here on August 2nd of every year to pay respects to the memory of the site. To me, all indications are that this complex will continue to remain well maintained, visited and well respected, both by visitors and the surrounding community.

Directions:

Finding the spomenik complex in the village of Vrtoče is a relatively easy endeavor. The most important direction is that the monument site is located directly in the center of the village, just at the southwest corner of the intersection of Highway E761 and Road R408b, and only a few hundred meters west of the village's petrol station. Parking can be made directly in front of the complex. Exact coordinates for parking are N44°38'08.7", E16°10'41.2".

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Comments:

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